Driving home from the Nassau Coliseum late last night I found myself reflecting on the first month of the Rangers season. While there was no ignoring the defeats in San Jose and Anaheim, the three shutout losses over the first ten games, Marty Biron's struggles and subsequent retirement, and the injuries to Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan, I still found a string of positives for the Rangers to feel good about moving forward into tomorrow's game against Buffalo and on into the month of November.
So on today's off day for the team I present to you some things for the Rangers to feel good about from the first month of the regular season.
- As lopsided as those losses in San Jose and Anaheim were, each only counted for one defeat; and the Rangers will close out October with a 4-6-0 record on the road. The best teams in the NHL aim to play .500 hockey on the road and then well above that on home ice. The Rangers are right there, just shy of a .500 road mark, and now must make the rest of the equation stand up by taking advantage of the extra home games they will be playing the next two months in order to be an elite-level team. But it needs to be noted that ten road games---including nine in a row---did not crush this team, and it most definitely can be argued that by winning four road games already has actually given the Rangers an extra layer of confidence moving forward.
- The two most recent road wins — actually wins of any kind — the Rangers have had were character-building come-from-behind victories, ones that good teams point back to when they surge and get on a roll at some point during the season. Saturday in Detroit the Rangers trailed 2-1 after 40 minutes only to rally against a good team in a tough building and skate away with a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory — one that had the distinct feel of an OT playoff win. Then last night the Rangers again wiped out a 2-1 third-period deficit en-route to a rousing 3-2 win over the Islanders. Character is not something you talk about as a team, it's something you need to show out on the ice. The Detroit and Islander games are examples 1 and 1a of the character the Rangers posess.
- The inspired performances in Detroit and on Long Island — desperate, passionate hockey — is what I walk away from October with, much more so than the dispiriting performances early in the season. This group is coming together, you can feel it.
- Alain Vigneault has admitted the Rangers have been forced to tighten things up with Nash and Callahan — and for ten games, Carl Hagelin — missing from the lineup, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. The Rangers look more comfortable playing with a tighter defensive structure. It's been four straight games of allowing no more than two goals a night, and the team has surrendered only 12 goals in its last six games. The goaltending has been better, for sure, but so has been the overall team commitment to defensive play. This will serve the Rangers well now, and even when Nash and Callahan are back in the lineup.
- Cam Talbot has quickly proven himself, and seems capable of serving as Henrik Lundqvist's understudy. That could be a major relief for Vigneault, who has stated that he needs a quality backup goalie who can start 15-20 games in order to give Lundqvist the proper amount of rest in an Olympic year. Talbot has started three of the last four games, winning twice, allowing two goals in each start. Piggybacking Talbot's strong play is the return to health of Lundqvist, who took a week off to rehab an unspecified injury, but who looked solid in his return Monday night against the Canadiens.
- Chris Kreider is playing like the elite-level prospect he has been touted to be since being drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft. Committed, intense, and full-speed ahead through four games since being recalled from Hartford, Kreider has stood out in a positive way each of the four games he's played with the Rangers. So far he has a goal and an assist, but it's the confidence he is playing with that is standing out, not that his wicked speed and willingness to use his impressive size and strength stands so far in the background.
- Kreider is not the only player coming on as of late. Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot — called a "difference-maker the last few games" by Vigneault, John Moore, Michael Del Zotto, and Ryan McDonagh — an aboslute beast defensively, and now contributing offensively, the past six games or so — have all played markedly better recently. Now they — and the rest of the lineup — need to keep improving and begin to maintain a much-higher level of play night-in and night-out.
Aren't there things stil tol be concerned about? Of course. The top two proven scorers remain out of the lineup indefinitely, placing much pressure on those who are playing. The Rangers offensive struggles have not been a mirage, they've been quite real. The Blueshirts are still the lowest scoring team in the NHL. And consistency has been tough to come by in all phases of the game — as evidenced by Monday's 2-0 loss in the home opener following hot on the heels of Saturday's exhilerating victory over the Red Wings. If the Rangers do not become a more consistent team, then it is going to be a real struggle this season. Of course a win over the Sabres tomorrow night would be a nice start, as it would signal the team's first winning "streak" of the young season. Baby steps.
There is no discounting the way the season started, but it also can not be ignored how the first month of the season is coming to a close. You get the feeling that good things are around the corner for this Rangers team.